By Simon Stephens
Directed by Robin Witt
Produced by Steep Theatre, Chicago
A Little Bit of the Lake District Brought to Heathrow
While Hamilton is dominating the coverage of the upcoming Broadway in Chicago tours, another hotly-anticipated event later in the year is British playwright Simon Stephens’ stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Followers of Steep Theatre Company are already familiar with Stephens, since three of his works have enjoyed American or Midwestern debuts there. His works have gained a following in some circles, but also gained contempt in others, because they are often episodic and feature seedy characters in mysterious situations. Wastwater is another one of those, and in Steep’s production, is directed by Robin Witt to deliver the atmosphere Stephens fans expect.
Wastwater is the name of the deepest lake in England, but the show’s action takes place in the vicinity of Heathrow, which is nowhere near it. The name is meant to be evocative to the original English audience: the Cumbrian moors surrounding Wastwater are often a shadowy locale, and due to its low oxygen content, the water has a tendency to preserve corpses. The play is made up of three conversations, each between two people. Though they are occasionally referenced in the others’ stories, the characters have little to do with each other at present. In the first two conversations, an apparently normal person interacts with someone who is plausibly screwed up. Frieda (Melissa Riemer) has been the foster mother of many teenagers. Now, one of them, Harry (Joel Boyd), is leaving for a job studying whales in Canada. Though she’s glad he’s been able to turn his life around from the trouble he was in when he first came to her, Frieda is going to miss him, and with the plan to demolish her house and expand Heathrow having fallen through, she can’t even expect to be paid by the government to move somewhere less lonely.
Meanwhile, Lisa (Kendra Thulin) and Mark (Nick Horst) are meeting in a hotel near the airport for an extramarital tryst. He’s an artist who has recently come to the conclusion that he’s only good enough to teach, never to be a master in his own right, and will be taking a job soon in Minneapolis. Lisa is a police officer who specializes in cases of child abuse, and the stress of her job led her life into a downward spiral which she claims to have only recently come out of. In both these conversations, Stephens drags out the revelations slowly, which allows us to remain sympathetic to the characters who are trying to move on, while slowly becoming more aware of how badly they’ve been damaged. The themes of travel and rootlessness are clearly emphasized, and the characters often reference Habanera, from Carmen, which is a song about the elusive, chaotic, unfair nature of love.
It’s the third conversation which causes the play to fall apart. Peter Moore play Jonathan, a man attempting to purchase a child, while Caroline Neff plays Sian, the trafficker who is putting him through some sort of vetting before delivering a Filipina girl whose plane has already landed. Sian is one of those figures from conspiracy theories who knows everything about the person she’s interrogating already, asks irrelevant questions, and behaves in a capricious, threatening manner. In this case, such a figure is especially nonsensical since Jonathan is paying her for something she’s already invested a lot in delivering. The characters in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party were not so arbitrary, nor were they crammed into a world that had already been established as running according to the normal rules of logic and character motivation. Jonathan can do nothing but sputter in bewilderment.
The actors all do a fine job, and the ones in the first two scenes are believable and affecting. Witt’s design team has put together an unsettling world filled with flickering shadows, thanks especially to Joe Schermoly’s practical light fixtures. Most of the play is quiet, but engaging, since the actors verbally take us on long, twisted journeys. However, the ridiculousness of the third scene gives away that, despite the writer and director’s claims that merely raising an unpleasant subject is some kind of social service, Wastwater is really just a series of campfire stories. There’s nothing wrong with offering that, but commenting that child abuse and loneliness exist isn’t the same thing as exploring them, and as well done as the first two scenes are, no larger point clearly comes across. As a series of static character studies go, Wastwater is well done until it departs from reality.
Reviewed July 7, 2016
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see Wastwater’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Steep Theatre, 1115 W Berwyn Chicago. Tickets are $25-35; to order, call 866-811-4111 or visit steeptheatre.com. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through August 13. Running time is one hundred minutes with no intermission.